BC grad’s path to religious life
By Jessi Russo
The number four was always significant to Bethany Kowal, a Briar Cliff University graduate, without her really understanding why.
The Omaha, Neb., native always wore the number four in athletics and never forgot a friend’s birthday on Oct. 4, even though she barely remembered her own family’s birthdays.
When she learned that Oct. 4 was St. Francis’ Feast Day—it made sense. Religious life was something she had grappled with and to her this was one of many signs God was calling.
Kowal, 28, entered the sisters of St. Francis as a candidate in July 2012 but her path to that moment began when she was a young girl. Kowal’s aunt was a Franciscan sister and the San Damiano cross she kept in her home had a special significance to Kowal.
“I remember being drawn to it and not knowing why,” she said.
At Mercy High School in Omaha, the thought of religious life came and went for Kowal. After high school, she was intent on enrolling at Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D., but others encouraged her to visit more than just one college. A visit to Briar Cliff University (BCU) to appease those around her changed the course of her life.
“I saw the San Damiano cross in the student center and my heart started to change,” said Kowal.
Kowal signed on to become a Charger at Briar Cliff University in 2002 and began working toward her majors in education and biology. The thought of religious life was still present.
She became familiar with several Franciscan sisters on campus and agreed to visit Mount St. Francis in Dubuque for a weekend with other students to learn about the history of the order and see the motherhouse.
At the end of her visit, she said goodbye to the Franciscan sisters and one sister had a feeling she’d see Kowal again.
“I was giving hugs and she said, ‘You don’t need to say goodbye, you’ll be back,’” said Kowal. “I thought she said that to everyone but the other girls said, ‘she didn’t say that to me.’”
After that visit, Kowal met with different sisters on the BCU campus and talked a lot about the possibility of joining religious life.
One October 4 evening — the feast of St. Francis — she sat in her dorm room with her Bible. She got the idea to mimic something St. Francis himself had done long ago when he opened his Bible three times to receive a message from God. When Kowal tried this, too, she opened to the same passage in three different Gospels.
After college, Kowal pursued her career in education and athletics at a public school before landing a position at the school so near and dear to her, Mercy High School.
Teaching P.E. and math while also serving as assistant athletic director at Mercy she continued talking with sisters about the possibility of becoming a sister, too, one day. As the years went by the sisters there nicknamed her “perpetual discerner,” said Kowal.
“I always joked that I had the best legs for running from it,” she said.
In 2008, Kowal graduated with a master’s degree in athletic training from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She was on track for her career goal of becoming athletic director. But there was always an internal struggle. Part of that struggle Kowal said was working for and loving the Sisters of Mercy but feeling this calling to the Franciscan way of life.
“The Mercies are equally important to me but there was something about [the Franciscan] community that felt like home,” said Kowal. “I was drawn to the Franciscan ideals — the focus on creation. I was a biology major so that’s important to me.”
Finally in 2011, Kowal took the first step toward religious life. She began the extensive application process in October of 2011 and was accepted in April 2012 and moved to Dubuque to live with Franciscan sisters in August.
“It was difficult,” said Kowal of leaving her family and her career. “I can miss those things but I don’t feel as if I shouldn’t be here.”
Kowal will live in Dubuque and spend the next few years working with Formation Director Sister Pat Doody, OSF, as she discerns her call for religious life.
“Beth has the desire, faith and the gifts to live Franciscan life with great passion and compassion,” said Sister Pat. “In the next few years, she will have opportunities to deepen Franciscan values as she enters into an initial formation process that includes education, faith development, and varieties of ministry experiences,” she added.
“I’m so excited for the journey. My biggest goal is to be open to what I’m called to be,” she said.
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